AUTHOR, activist, educationist and ex-politician: Dr Kua Kia Soong firmly believes in fighting for social justice.
Despite being arrested twice — under the Internal Security Act (ISA) during Operation Lalang in 1987, and the second time for participating in the Second Asia-Pacific Conference on East Timor in 1996 — Kua’s passion for justice has not diminished. He continues to take an active role in promoting human rights through Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram), of which he is a director.
The former DAP Member of Parliament for Petaling Jaya (1990-1995) believes that everyone in this country deserves equal rights. To him, Malaysians are made up of people from different parts of the world.
Kua, 58, hails from Batu Pahat, Johor. The grandson of the founder of the now defunct Batu Pahat Bank, Kua, a Teochew, attended Lim Poon Primary School and Batu Pahat High School before going on to further his studies in Britain. He graduated with a BA and MA in Economics from the University of Manchester, and went on to earn his PhD in Sociology.
Speaking from his office in Dong Jiao Zong’s New Era College in Kajang, Selangor on 16 Dec 2008, Kua shares the history of his family and thoughts about his identity with the The Nut Graph. His term as the principal and academic director of the college ended on 31 Dec 2008.
TNG: Can you trace your ancestry? Where were your parents/ grandparents from? What generation Malaysian are you?
My grandfather, Kua Kim Pah, came from the Teochew area of China and he came over here just before the turn of the 20th century. He settled in Batu Pahat in Johor, and eventually founded the Batu Pahat Bank. I found out from Prof Khoo Kay Kim that the Batu Pahat bank was actually the first bank outside Kuala Lumpur to be set up.
My grandfather had a wife in China, but she was unable to bear him any children. So he married again, to Goh Gek Lan in 1915, and she bore him 13 children.
They moved to Malaya at the turn of the last century.
My father, Kua Swee Boon, was the eldest child born in 1918 in Batu Pahat, the year of the Russian Revolution. He was the first president of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Batu Pahat. So we mainly grew up in Batu Pahat. I’m the second generation.
By the time I was born, my grandfather had already died. I heard more stories from my mother, Weng Soo Keng, who was born in China. My dad went to China to marry my mother. She was married for a week before having to follow my father back here. She was about 18 when she came here.
What is your strongest memory of the place where you grew up?
It definitely has to be my childhood, when I grew up in the kampung. My strongest memory is the whole combination of my childhood friends, relatives, neighbours and playing in the kampung. And of course, my teachers from Lim Poon Primary School.
What are the stories you hold onto the most from your parents / grandparents / uncles?
My grandfather was quite legendary. He did very well. I heard stories about his experience during World War II, the Japanese occupation, and post-WWII. When I was growing up, it was the Vietnamese war and emergency, all [those stories]. And how there was no polarisation then as compared to now. There was a much more genuine interaction among the communities then.
How do you connect with these stories as a Malaysian?
They were all set in Malaysia. We were rooted in Malaysian earth; Chinese literature was based on Malaysia. Even my grandfather, who was born in China, was a Malaysian.
What aspects of your identity do you struggle with the most as a Malaysian?
When I was in England from 1970-1978, my identity was Chinese Malaysian but I could not understand Chinese. My professors were all studying Chinese because China was coming up fast at that time. But I did not know Chinese, I did not understand Chinese, and people asked me why I couldn’t understand Chinese although I’m Chinese. I think that’s the biggest part of my struggle as a Malaysian. But you need to be outside the country to experience it. In Malaysia, I feel totally Malaysian and I do not have any identity crisis.
Describe the kind of Malaysia you would like for yourself and future generations.
The kind of Malaysia I want my children — Hua Ying and Bi Hua — to have? It’s the end of racial discrimination. Discrimination should be based on class and sector, not race. It’s easy and communalist. Why should this be idealistic? If fisherfolk are too poor, why bother if they are Chinese or Malays? Why can’t they be treated better regardless of their race? It is not idealistic at all.
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